If you’re taking glucosamine to help your knees, you might be wasting your money. A recent study in Arthritis & Rheumatology reported that 1500 mgs of glucosamine hydrochloride failed to reduce knee cartilage damage and to improve function among patients with knee pain. Though about ten percent of Americans take the over-the-counter supplement, study results have been mixed, and its effectiveness is still inconclusive.
Last week, doctors also released the number of Americans who have had joint replacement surgery—new hips and knees—and the numbers are pretty staggering. Over two percent of Americans have artificial joints, and those numbers are only expected to climb. In 2012, a study in the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery predicted that there will be a 670 percent increase in total knee replacements by 2030.
Factors like obesity, better surgical options, and an aging population are likely contributing to the growth, but they don’t account for a disproportionate number of young people getting knee replacements, and the study’s authors think a growing number of knee injuries could be another driver.
Though there’s no magic bullet to guarantee healthy joints, but there are preventative steps you can take to help protect them, says Dr. David Geier, an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston, South Carolina.
Contact sports like football, or sports that require cutting or landing movements like soccer or basketball, present higher risk for injury. “Traumatic injuries from sports certainly can pose a risk for later arthritis and the need for hip or knee replacement surgery,” he says.
If you’re not willing to give up time on the field, make sure to have an off-season with other forms of exercise. Activities like biking, swimming, and using elliptical trainers are good low-impact alternatives, particularly for those who already have knee problems. But Geier doesn’t advise against running—it’s “a terrific form of exercise”—and there isn’t data to suggest that avoiding it will reduce the risk of arthritis.
But, for runners who have a history of hip or knee injury, it’s not a bad idea to cross train, mixing lower impact activities with a regular running schedule. You should also consider a strengthening exercise program, or get help from a physical therapist. And if you do start to experience pain in your joints, see a doctor ASAP. “Often the problem can be remedied with simple measures before it becomes a larger, more complicated problem,” he says. Anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy, home strengthening exercises, and even injections can help relieve pain and improve function.
If you do end up under the knife, there’s still good news: techniques and devices are improving all the time. “While a hip or knee replaced with metal and plastic is not as good as a joint with no damage, those hip and knee replacements provide much more pain-free movement than the worn out bone and cartilage did,” he says.